Top Chef stumbled at the Alamo at the beginning of the season, and it returns here to fully face-plant toward a would-be finale, botching the tension and finesse that typically divides late-season episodes from their predecessors.
The chefs arrive in the kitchen to stacks and stacks of pancakes, a favorite food of this week's guest judge, Pee-wee Herman. Not to be confused with Paul Reubens. That wouldn't have made any sense, but it would have made more sense than bringing on a fictional character with little to no interest in or ability to talk about food, especially this late in the game. Don't get me wrong—I liked Pee-wee's Playhouse and Big Adventure as a kid, but that nostalgia's doing nothing for me here. Watching his seizures of the face respond to Top Chef cooking makes for terrible TV. Pee-wee's goofiness works in an equally goofy, scripted environment—not in a reality show featuring professional chefs. And given the lifeless smiles and uncomfortable faces not even the judges could stifle, I'm betting this was no one's favorite episode to film.
The chefs have 20 minutes to spin pancakes for poor, aging Pee-wee, and with that little time, each of them goes for a fairly typical, upscale twist on pancakes involving citrus and ricotta and fancier presentation than pancakes typically require. Pee-wee concludes that every pancake is the best pancake he's ever eaten, and meanwhile, a little part of me dies inside. Only Ed manages something creative, inspired by those dribbles of batter that fluff and crisp up into perfect, miniature pancakes. I'd venture that everyone who's stood making pancakes for awhile has popped a few of those into their mouths. He mixes them up with berries and they can be spooned up, and it's genius. (I bet a General Mills executive is commanding someone make that into a cereal right now. They'll have to fight this guy on the intellectual property rights.) Ed takes his first Quickfire win and $5,000 from… Healthy Choice. Is anyone who works at Top Chef still thinking about Top Chef anymore? Are we the only ones paying attention here?
The elimination challenge this week highlights talents needed to be a skilled chef: riding a bike; reading a map; carrying around ingredients in the hot sun; and, of course, borrowing some prep space from an existing, operating restaurant for a dinner located a bike-ride away. All because Pee-wee went there to find his bike in the non-existent basement. I wish we could see footage from the production meeting when this idea was hatched. It's Road Rules meets Top Chef meets Pee-wee's Pointless Adventure. The chefs have three hours, $100, and a bike to find ingredients, a place to cook, and a way to the Alamo. As a result, the show revolves around the ridiculous conceit and constraints of the challenge.
The chefs take off and soon find a market where they're able to get most of their ingredients. It's a small market, so many of them supplement their findings with ingredients from the restaurants where they end up squatting. (Another restriction: They can't work in the same space, so Lindsay gets bounced from restaurant to restaurant looking for a place to work.) The artificiality of the challenge prohibits the chefs from making interesting dishes, and the chefs' attitudes, while goofily game during the prep and presentation, comes out in some of the interviews. Ed says it best when he says he's trying to "get this challenge over with." My thoughts exactly.
The judges praise the dishes on the whole, but they qualify their appreciation with phrases like "under the circumstances." Really, this late in the season, I'd expect a judge's table more akin to what we saw two weeks ago when Charlize Theron guest judged: The chefs were given the freedom to demonstrate what they do well, and the decision came down to hair-splitting over tweaked seasoning or balance or texture. Set the chefs up for failure, and they'll fail. Lindsay takes the win for her stuffed zucchini with braised beef cheeks; Grayson packs her knives for her stuffed chicken breast, which combined the incompatible tomatoes and butternut squash. (The word according to Tom.)
Heading into the finale, here's how I'd hoped Last Chance Kitchen would go down: Instead of the final four, as expected, there would be a final three. They'd head off to Vancouver, or wherever the finale's going to be, and then—surprise!—the Last Chance survivor-chef would return like the ghost of Christmas past, filling out the four and bringing us into the normal finale setup. Instead, this episode ends up feeling like Top Chef's stalling out, eliminating one just to bring another back next week. And if it's Grayson, it will be the exact same episode, hopefully one that exists in the parallel universe where this is still a good TV show. The setup has promise.
- I'm sorry, but what a joke to have Pee-wee Herman glowering seriously at the judge's table.
- SORT OF SPOILER ALERT. I can't believe I wasted 11 minutes of my time watching the Last Chance Kitchen episode… to realize I'd just need to tune in next week. But Grayson's got to take this, right? I'd prefer Bev, just to see Lindsay's pinched head explode, but from Tom's comments, I'm thinking Grayson. Which means that next week, we'll likely have this week's episode, as it should have been recorded the first time.
- Grayson, thank you for not saying "thank you for the opportunity."